Historical utilitarian bags throughout the ages

Historical utilitarian bags throughout the ages

Clothes did not have pockets until the 17th century, thus men and women alike carried bags.

For practical reasons, many people carried bags that were appropriate for the working class like messenger bags and specific work bags such as tool bags and doctors bags, others were specifically styled for the elite. For this blog post I will be focusing on first for specific functions.

Doctors bags & tool bags


Travel bags and luggage

“These items date from between the Wars and include two large steamer trunks, two large suitcases, and four smaller cases including some in plain leather.”

Louis vuitton luggage

These vintage Louis Vuitton bags above were included in an auction from a private collection in Somerset, all the luggage comes complete with interior trays and labels. Incredibly, each case still has its original key (in some cases two keys). Estimates will range from £300-£3000, with each item being sold as an individual lot.

The Louis Vuitton brand was established in 1854 in Paris and by 1913 the company had a retail shop on the iconic boulevard in Paris - The Champs Elysees and added further shops in New York, London and other major wealthy cities.  They designed trunks that were able to be stacked, they were lightweight, airtight and high quality and the label became a byword for dependable, timeless elegance and refinement. These days people don’t really use these kind of heavy trumps for travel, up to 4 lightweight luggage with wheels which is more practical for modern day travel. However people still collect these bags for interior design reasons and to display homes for decoration.

Through the years, the more specialized and customized bags were targeted for the aristocratic class. For instance, secret compartments and highly designed bags were ultimately prized and considered to be a high-status symbol.

Cycling and sport bags

Historical bikes from the online bicycle museum

The bicycle and all things related to two wheels is an area close to our hearts at Goodordering. So it goes without saying that we look regularly at vintage cycling bags and equipment when designing our modern day pannier bags. The  freewheel hub was invented and introduced in 1898, and rear carrier racks followed soon after. So that became the logical location for luggage. However, prior to that, when bicycles were fixed wheel, the emergency exit route was via the rear, so it was not feasible to fit luggage behind the saddle. In that era, leather frame bags were sold as an accessory, and some manufacturers made front carrier racks with a leather or canvas luggage bag to suit.

Some of the information for this post has come from a great resource called the Online Bicycle Museum, which also contains a lot more information on the earliest bicycles and accessoriesincluding truck bags saddle bags and the earliest bicycle pannier  bags.

vintage cycling bag with pannier bags

This bag above is a variation on the Gundle’s ‘Model N’ tradesmen’s bicycle, as it was adapted for a contract supply to W.H Smith and does not have the normal front carrier, but instead has rack and panniers to the rear.

W.H Smith opened their first bookstall at Euston station in 1848. With many other station bookstalls subsequently established, within a few years the company had become the country’s principal newspaper distributor.

This bicycle was used in the 1960s at a small station in north Devon to supply newspapers, and ML was subsequently owned by a local museum until I purchased it last year.

Vintage bike with rigid pannier bags

Hunting and shooting bags

Hunting and shooting as a sport has long required a fair amount of equipment and accessories, therefore you can imagine that there is also bags to go along with this sport. When people went on shooting trips for recreation or sport, there are a range of pockets and compartments that are necessary. 

rifle case illustration

A leather gun case - also known as a 'leg-of-mutton case' like this cost £6.00 in 1924. The image below is an Abercrombie and Fitch Leather Leg of Mutton Gun Case made for 31-inch barrels.  As you can see here, its made of thick tanning leather which allows it to be embossed with initials. These bags often featured brass locks with leather flap covers or similar kinds of closures. They would also have matching or contrast leather handles and shoulder straps as well as inside compartments and fleece lining. 

leather vintage Rifle case

According to the Vintage Gun Journal, "The cost of gun cases historically has varied. Charles Gordon bought a Purdey in 1899 for £73.00 and had it lavishly cased for an additional cost of £14.00. Equivalent of these prices would be way more today however this gives an indication of the value of the workmanship behind making these leather cases. There are less photos available from this time however there are still many drawings of illustrations of these kind of bugs around that you can find on the Internet and in old books.

A best quality oak & leather case made from finest selected hide on carefully dove-tailed oak frame, fitted with cast brass corners and centre plate, double action spring locks, lined with best cloth.

A best quality oak & leather case made from finest selected hide on carefully dove-tailed oak frame, fitted with cast brass corners and centre plate, double action spring locks, lined with best cloth. This cost £3.18s 0d in 1912.

Knife hunting bags 

even earlier than guns hunting was still an activity for necessity more than sport. Are examples of very early shoulder bags that contains a separate knife pockets. The one on the left is one that is made by hand and obviously the one on the right is a replica made with a sewing machine.

hunting bags

Below are images of early 19th Century Hunting Bags with Horns from an auction site. The collection Includes a leather pouch retaining good traces of hair finish, beaver tail flap and a tan and blue striped woven sling with attached knife scabbard.  Second pouch of deerskin with woven web sling.  Third pouch of black leather with fringed flap and good plain powder horn.  Last pouch of leather with cord sling and plain horn.  Lot also includes a small priming horn which would have been used for calling and communication during hunting.

Hunting bags

Equestrian bags and Hermes

The brand Hermes which we know so well today as a high fashion brand started its life as a brand that made saddles. In 1837, Thierry Hermès (1801–1878) first established Hermès as a harness workshop on the Grands Boulevards quarter of Paris dedicated to serving European noblemen.

He created some of the finest wrought harnesses and bridles for the carriage trade. Over the following decades Hermes developed into one of the most famous saddlery retailers and they also began to produce leather bags to feed the horse, to house the saddles and to carry other accessories for riders such as boots, whips and riding hats. 

Hermes historical bags

In 1983 Jane Birkin sat beside Jean Louis Dumas, the director of Hermes, on a flight to London from Paris. She dropped her Hermes diary and papers spilled everywhere. She exclaimed no bag ever had enough pockets to hold all her papers! This is a large bag that was strong and beautiful and soon enough it was to be one of the most sought after designs in the world.

Hermes birkin bag

Hermes saddle bags

This is a pre WWI canteen "M 1 NC 2 with crossed rifles and U.S." stamped on canvas cover. Canteen is 8" in width and 10" tall. Cork stopper with chain attachment. Leather strap with brass clips attached to canteen.

It is U.S. stamped three strap McClellan saddlebag. "LONG/1917/W.J.D" stamped on the right side just above saddlebag flap featuring Brass rivets and rings.

Saddle bags vintage leather
Other bags

Sometimes you come across bags that were originally designed for activities that no longer exist or This one below is called a parachute bag, i gather the folds and construction is so that tools can be stored easily in each of the different compartments.

Sea bag

 Here below are a couple of vintage hiking bags. They are made from canvas with leather trim. There is a frame which helps the bag to be carried for long distances with a heavy load. Back then in the 60s, 70s, the fabrics available to makes these kinds of bags was limited. We see these vintage bags usually only available in a small range of colours, fabric colours were limited by the dyes and pigments that were commercially available at the time.

Vintage hiking bags

The lightweight aluminium frames were strong but lightweight. 

Child carrying woven birch backpacks

swedish birch woven backpack

Different cultures have bags that are made from materials local to their habitat, for example the birch tree which is native to sweden and scandavia. Swedish woven birch backpacks.This is a19th century Swedish woven birch backpack. Unusual woven birch backpack with leather straps. Found in Sweden. Was used by the Sami people for carrying infants and small children.

swedish birch woven backpack

 These bags are so rare now that you can find them in museums only. Occasionally you can find them on auction sites. You can see a similar handbag version of the woven backpack that is from Finland here at the British Museum. 

historical bags finland woven birch hand bag

Game bag

A game bag is a specific shoulder / messenger style bag usually in natural 'country' style colours such as tan and brown that is used by game shooters - think Prince Charles. The net or mesh pouch at the front is specifically designed to store the 'catch'. It is a net so it can allow the game to cool

Personally i find the whole hunting thing a bit gross, and i would never hunt myself but these bags have an old tradition and its interesting to look into the original reasons behind bag details.

Game bag with mesh front pocket

Prince charles hunting at Sandringham

I just love looking back at historical items when i'm designing bags for now. Its a never ending source of inspiration and ideas. Many modern day bags take details from historical functional bags such as hunting, fishing and travel bags. Even our modern day Goodordering bicycle pannier bags find their original inspiration in horse pannier bags.

horse pannier bags

goodordering pannier bags on a horse

Goodordering double pannier bag Check out our double pannier bag HERE

Read on:

The mental health benefits of cycling

Ways to stay safe when cycling at night

Electric bikes - questions to ask yourself when buying

Bike storage for your home

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